By Steven Thompson
It was a cold reception that race car driver Wendell Scott received on that unseasonably cold day of Dec. 1, 1963, in Jacksonville, when he became the first black man to win a NASCAR race in the Grand National Series.
The temperature had been in the 40s that day and driver Richard Petty had been leading most of the 200 laps at Speedway Park on the westside of Jacksonville.
But when Scott passed Petty and later claimed the win, the atmosphere chilled even more.
Although Scott, one of the first black NASCAR drivers, finished the race one lap ahead of second-place driver Buck Baker, it was Baker who was initially declared the winner of the race after top level race officials noticed scorecard errors.
In a 2010 article in The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville’s Willie Carter, 74 at the time, who raced 17 years at Speedway Park, said the race’s result was contested, in part, because Scott had received no checked flag when he crossed on his 200th lap.
Making it even more confusing, at that time teams kept their own tabs on how many laps drivers completed. With no electronic monitoring of laps, scoring could get confusing.
“Everybody was in and out of the pits; nobody knew who was leading the race,” Carter said. “The owners didn’t know. I was there when they were discussing it after the race. It was an honest mistake. They didn’t know who won the race.
“There was a beauty queen there that night and Wendell walked up to Buck Baker, and said, ‘Mr. Buck, you can kiss that beauty queen, but that trophy’s mine. I won that race.’ That’s when the controversy started.”
It took officials two hours before they declared Scott the actual victor – long after the fans had cleared the racetrack; long after anyone who might have protested a black man’s victory over a white man had left.
It took another four weeks before Scott was awarded the race trophy, and then not even the official trophy at that.
NASCAR officially awarded Scott the winner of the race two years later. He became the first black driver to win a race in the Grand National Series.
Scott’s career was the result of hard work in an era when blacks weren’t universally accepted, especially in the South.
“Wendell Scott was a World War II pioneer and gifted mechanic,” said Tom Jensen, curatorial affairs manager at NASCAR Hall of Fame and former Fox Sports NASCAR reporter. “He worked very hard but he still faced a lot of adversity that other drivers didn’t.”
Born Aug. 29, 1921 in Danville, Va., Scott decided early in life that instead of working in Danville’s cotton mills and tobacco processing plants, he would learn auto mechanics from his father.
His father was a highly skilled mechanic and driver who worked for two wealthy white families.
Scott absorbed his father’s knowledge in auto mechanics and inherited his father’s passion for skillful driving.
As a boy, Scott would race other boys using a bicycle, roller skates or whatever was available.
He dropped out of high school and became a taxi driver. Then, he met and married Mary Coles.
After that, Scott went on to serve in the segregated Army in Europe during World War II.
When he returned to the U.S. after the war, he ran an auto repair shop.
However, Scott was not content just being a mechanic and running the auto repair shop. He began stock car racing in local circuits, largely because he was forbidden to drive in more acclaimed races such as NASCAR, due to his race.
“He got a lot of abuse in the sport when he first started,” longtime NASCAR driver Buddy Baker, Buck’s son, told The Florida Times-Union. “I heard stories of the way he was treated in the drivers meeting and things like that. In the early days our sport had stuff like that going on, I guess.”
Despite the numerous obstacles he had to face, Scott was finally awarded his NASCAR license in 1953.
He debuted in the Grand National Series on March 4, 1961, in Spartanburg, S.C, and he entered the Grand National Series race on Dec. 1, 1963, in Jacksonville. The rest is history.
Scott continued to compete throughout the 1960s. His top year in racing came in 1969 when he earned $47,451. His career ended with a crash on a Talladega, Ala., race track in 1973.
“His passion for racing, love of the sport, tenacious spirit and hard work earned him many white fans, friends and the admiration of some of the other drivers,” Jensen said.
Scott never received the actual trophy from his NASCAR win or proper recognition.
In 2010, 47 years after the race, and 20 years after he died from spinal cancer, his family was awarded the trophy.
Additional awards he received posthumously is the induction of the 1999 International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the 2015 induction of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the most poignant memory of Scott is best noted on an historical marker, placed in his honor on January 2013, in Danville, Va.
“It reads “Preserving over prejudice and discrimination, Scott broke racial barriers in NASCAR, with a 13-year career that included 20 top five and 147 top 10 finishes.”